The origin of the Plebs League: "The Burning Question of Education"

Submitted by Matthew on 9 September, 2010 - 4:18 Author: Colin Waugh

Achieving control of Ruskin College was central to the WEA/extension project. From the summer of 1907 onwards, its supporters threw themselves into open propaganda, behind-the-scenes lobbying and bureaucratic manoeuvring — all aimed at purging the college of whatever stood in their way.

As well as setting up the committee to oversee the writing of Oxford and Working-Class Education, setting out the structure and to some degree the content of study at Ruskin College, the August 1907 Oxford Delegacy/WEA conference also set up an Oxford Tutorial Classes Committee, with Oxford tutor William Temple — for the University — and Albert Mansbridge — for the WEA — as its joint secretaries. Under this, and with support from a number of Oxford colleges, eight tutorial classes were eventually started.

The first two of these began in January 1908. On Mansbridge's initiative, R H Tawney, by this stage a part time lecturer at Glasgow University, began to teach tutorial classes for working people at Longton in Staffordshire and in Rochdale. By the way he ran these classes, Tawney showed that Mansbridge’s approach could work in practice. At this point, the WEA/extension alliance moved on from promoting tutorial classes to organising them. At the same point, influential backers within Oxford University began manoeuvring to control Ruskin.

In 1899, when Ruskin was founded, there were in Oxford some academics who supported the founders’ project. The faculty chosen by Ruskin founder Walter Vrooman included, along with Hird and Hacking, two Oxford graduates who were at that stage sympathetic: H B Lees Smith and Bertram Wilson. In 1900 Lees Smith, who was now the vice principal, wrote an appeal to unions for funds. He concluded this by saying: “We shall be quite content if we have a Labour College, no more and no less”. However, the situation began to change in 1902 when the founders ceased to provide an income.

First, three Oxford professors sent an appeal round the university asking for donations, on the grounds that otherwise Ruskin would become dependent on union funding alone. Although this appeal was unsuccessful, Bertram Wilson, as general secretary and treasurer of the college executive, began to pursue the same goal by appealing to very wealthy individuals, including aristocrats, across the country. In the process, he also distanced himself further and further from his initial sympathy. Clearly, the more “non-partisan” the curriculum at Ruskin could become, the more chance there was of raising money from such sources.

Union funding was still pursued. The point was, rather, that the extension side did not want Ruskin to be funded exclusively by unions because they believed that this funding might eventually come under rank and file control.

In 1907, Lees Smith was appointed as a professor at Bristol University. At the same time the Ruskin governors made him Director of Studies at Ruskin, and chairperson of the college's executive committee. In this capacity, he acted over the head of Dennis Hird, to appoint one of his friends, H Sanderson Furniss, as a lecturer, and, in October, another, Charles Sydney Buxton, as vice-principal. Neither of these people could claim to have any knowledge of — or connection with — the labour movement or working class. At this time also the governors restructured the college executive. They put the vice principal and general secretary in joint charge with the principal, rather than under him as before.

Early in the term which began in October 1907, A L Smith, a fellow and tutor of Balliol College and one of the Extension Delegacy’s nominees on the committee that had overseen Oxford and Working-Class Education, came to Ruskin to meet the students. At this informal meeting he told them that there was “a sort of committee” that was trying to promote closer links between the college and the University.

Soon after this the chancellor of Oxford and former viceroy of India, Lord Curzon of Kedleston, who was writing a book about how the university as a whole could be reformed — also visited Ruskin. This episode was later described in the Plebs League pamphlet The Burning Question of Education as follows:

“The students were all standing and had formed a ring, in the centre of which Lord Curzon spoke. Mr Hird also advanced to the centre and stood facing Lord Curzon while he replied. The contrast between the two men was very striking.

“The circumstances in which they met invested the event with a distinctly dramatic colour. Lord Curzon wearing his Doctor of Laws gown — not the glittering robes of the Chancellor’s office, but robes of dark coloured cloth devoid of ornamentation, as if they represented the University in mourning for the condescension implied in his visit.

“Not so Lord Curzon himself, however. He stood in a position of ease, supporting himself by a stick, which he held behind him as a prop to the dignity of the upper part of his body. A trifling superiority in height, increased by the use of the stick, allowed him to look down somewhat on Mr Hird. It was easy to see that this man had been a Viceroy of India. Autocratic disdain, and the suggestion of a power almost feudal in its character, seemed stamped on his countenance.

“As the purport of Mr Hird’s reply reached his comprehension, Lord Curzon seemed to freeze into a statuesque embodiment of wounded dignity. For Mr Hird was not uttering the usual compliments, but was actually rebuking the University for having neglected Ruskin college until the day of its assured prosperity. As he spoke, the students moved instinctively towards him as if mutely offering him support...

“In substance, he said: ‘My Lord, when you speak of Ruskin College you are not referring merely to this institution here in Oxford, for this is only a branch of a great democratic movement that has its roots all over the country. To ask Ruskin College to come into closer contact with the University is to ask the great democracy whose foundation is the Labour Movement, a democracy that in the near future will come into its own, and, when it does, will bring great changes in its wake.” As he concluded, the burst of applause that emanated from the students seemed to herald the dawn of the day Dennis Hird had predicted.

“Without another word, Lord Curzon turned on his heel and walked out, followed by the remainder of the lecture staff, who looked far from pleased.”

Very soon a sub committee of the Ruskin executive, composed of half of its members plus Lees Smith as director of studies, proposed that Hird be forbidden to continue teaching economics and sociology (which he alone taught) and that instead he must lecture only on literature and on temperance. Early in November, when the students found out about this, all except one signed a petition against it.

In the spring of 1908, a meeting took place, at the students' request, between representatives of the students and the two main trade union governors of Ruskin. These governors were the general secretary of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants, Richard Bell, and David Shackleton, the general secretary of the Textile Workers Association. The students asked for this meeting so that they could press these governors to try harder for union funding. According to Craik, who was one of the delegates, Bell and Shackleton insisted that the college must continue to depend partly on private donations.

In the summer of 1908 the Ruskin executive, again acting over Hird's head, brought in “Revision Papers” — compulsory written tests — for all first year students. (Up till then all assessment had been via tutors’ comments on monthly essays, given in one-to-one interviews. This was the basis on which workers were recruited as students. However, whereas Hird and Hacking were good at giving feedback in this way, Lees Smith and Furniss apparently found it difficult.) Students who protested against these “Revision Papers” were told that they must either take them or be barred from entering the second year.

In August 1908, the Cornhill Magazine printed an article by the vice-principal of Ruskin, Sydney Buxton. This article included the sentence: “The necessary common bond [i.e. between working class people and the better-off] is education in citizenship, and it is this which Ruskin College tries to give — conscious that it is only a new patch on an old garment, an idealist experiment in faece Romuli”. Faece literally means dregs.

The joint Oxford Extension Delegacy/WEA committee, still with Mansbridge and Temple as secretaries, had by this time been made permanent, and in October the WEA extension bloc and its supporters, who were now nearly in control of the college, started a carrot and stick policy towards the students and the two staff members who supported them. Thus from autumn 1908 through to the first three months of 1909, students were often invited to tea with Oxford dons.

At the same time, there were more and more attempts to clamp down on them speaking at meetings both in Oxford and elsewhere. In October a sub committee of the executive had been quick to condemn the formation of The League of the “Plebs”. Because the students had now begun to stay away from lectures by Furniss and Buxton, the executive ruled that attendance at all lectures was compulsory. On 2 December, after Oxford and Working-Class Education had been officially published, Mansbridge wrote to the labour movement members of the joint committee to say that in his view “all is now in order at Oxford”.

In this situation, Dennis Hird, although banned by the executive from associating himself openly with the Plebs League, took the students' side. At the beginning of March 1909 the governors claimed that he was “failing to maintain discipline”, and demanded his resignation, which he gave.

The WEA/extension bloc may well have anticipated that the students would protest against them setting Hird up in this way. As well as this, they probably calculated that they could use these protests to identify and purge the most leftwing students, and thereby intimidate the others. However, they probably did not realise that the students and ex-students had a positive project of their own, and the capacity to carry it through.

Plebs thinking 1908-09

Some of the material written by the students and former students shows that they were moving towards a coherent theoretical analysis of the factors at stake in the Ruskin struggle.

The four-page editorial in the first issue of Plebs Magazine was probably written by George Sims. Sims was a carpenter from Bermondsey who had left school at the age of eight to become a page boy in a Park Lane mansion. Although sponsored at Ruskin by a well-off individual, Dr Salter, he had between 1904 and 1907 been secretary of Bermondsey and Rotherhithe Trades and Labour Council. Sims had been a member of the SDF, but he was expelled from it in 1908 for advocating industrial unionism. In 1918, while serving as a sergeant major in northern Italy he would write an open letter to Plebs Magazine in which he would say: “I met Marx in 1906. True, he had been dead then some twenty-three years… Who can be dead when his influence appeals to, lives with one as intimately as the closest of friends?… . I had tried for years to get a feeling of reality in religion… But with the first reading of the Communist Manifesto, how the pamphlet appealed to something in me … the Christian looks to the miracle of individual conversion and the fatalist to the event. We are neither fatalists nor believers in miracles — simply people who know the inevitableness of the end; the inevitability of social evolution, of development and progress based upon material needs…”

On Friday 5 February 1909, Sims spoke at a Plebs League social held in the Cooperative Hall, Cowley Road, Oxford. This was reported in Plebs Magazine issue 1 as follows: “Mr Sims, of Ruskin College, in a short and breezy speech, explained that the object of the Plebs League was to bring about a definite and more satisfactory connexion between Ruskin College and the Labour Movement. He said in order to promote those interests, it was essential that the teaching the worker received should be in harmony with such interests, and that it should not require that mental condition known as the open mind, which often betokened an empty mind. It was necessary that the control of their institution should be ultimately in the hands of the workers. Their mandate was ‘the education of the workers in the interests of the workers’.”

The editorial's first words were: “Enter the ‘Plebs’, not from above but from below, not to fight a sham battle among the shadows by the orders and for the interests of our masters, but to fight a real battle in the full light and with a clear knowledge of the issue before us’. Sims then explained the purpose of the magazine as follows: “To make clear the real position of Ruskin College, to point out its present weaknesses, to outline its possibilities, to demonstrate its value to the Labour Movement if definitely founded thereon, to stimulate active interest in working-class education and to open out propaganda of an educational character from the working-class point of view …”

Next, he explained that the management of “Plebs” “will be entirely free from any connection with existing organisations”, adding that “we are not appealing to any party or section of the working-class but to all workers, irrespective of whether they are ILPers, SDPers, Trade Unionists or Non-Unionists'.

Then, having defined the “mission” of the “Plebs” as “to bring about a definite and more satisfactory connection between Ruskin College and the Labour Movement”, he explained how this would require: “that this institution shall be open to all workers, that it shall be controlled by a representative assembly of the workers, and finally that the education imparted shall be of a kind and of a quality capable of application in the interests of the workers as a class”.

Sims explained how there was two irreconcilable sets of class interests in present day society. Within this, he said: “Now the non-producers want more and more, and the producers want more and more. But in order that the former may get more, the latter must take less, and inversely.” (He presented, then, a conception of class struggle based on inequality of distribution rather than on the Marxist conception of exploitation at the point of production.)

He moved on to reject the education on offer via extension, saying that “it is essential that the teaching the worker receives shall be in harmony with [his/her own class] interests… that it shall not require of the student that particular mental condition known in ‘the home of lost causes’ [Oxford University] as “the open mind,” open, in order that the apologist may write his sweet will upon it and close it with the seal of the verbal juggler”. From this it follows that: “If the education of the workers is to square with the ultimate object of the workers — social emancipation, then it is necessary that the control of such an educational institution must be in the hands of the workers”.

In support of this principle of not trusting other classes with workers' education, Sims cited the example of a factory owner who gives money “for the purpose of promoting the education of working men” while denying his/her own employees the leisure time needed for study, adding that: “Inability to recognise the class cleavage was responsible for the downfall of the Plebs of the Roman Empire”.

Sims maintained that: “Ruskin College provides the necessary machinery for turning out men capable of playing an important part in the fight for freedom”. He then added three points about 'the aims and ideals of the League of the Plebs'.

First, “It seeks to bind the students of Ruskin College, past and present, in closer union with each other . . .” Secondly, “It endeavours to permeate the Labour Movement in all its ramifications with the desire for human liberation”. Thirdly, “Realising that the propelling force behind all social progress is social knowledge, it aspires to the dissemination and continuity of such knowledge among those whom it will reach”. Restating the mandate of the League as: “the education of the workers in the interests of the workers” [Sims's italics], he ended by defining the ultimate goal as “Industrial Democracy”.

The other main article in the first issue of Plebs Magazine is “The relation of Ruskin College to the Labour Movement” by the miners' checkweighman Noah Ablett, who had been a student at Ruskin in 1907-08. Ablett had been a preacher during the 1904-05 South Wales religious revival. Soon after this, however, he joined the ILP. While at Ruskin, Ablett took part in the Oxford branch of the British Advocates of Industrial Unionism.

In December 1909, Ablett was back in Oxford, speaking at the inaugural meeting of the Oxford branch of the Plebs League, held in the Commercial Road Schoolroom, St Ebbe's. His response to questions was detailed in The Plebs issue 1 as follows: “Ruskin College was not an educational experiment in the ordinary sense of the word. It arose out of the necessities of the Labour Movement. It was a temporary and specialised institution, and therefore could not be considered as part of the national scheme of education. The present institution, Mr Ablett continued, was not owned and controlled by the Labour Movement and this was a defect that this League of the ‘Plebs’ was going to put right . . . If the present institution could not be secured, then other institutions must arise to fulfil this now indispensable function for the working-class”.

Ablett points out the growing trend for the working class to act independently (as for example “in the political arena”) and noted the desperate attempts by “the hosts of reaction, in their innumerable guises” to prevent this spreading to other areas of life. Noting also that: “Nowhere is this more evident than in the controversial sphere of education”, he went on: “The number of attempts to impose education from above’ are legion. Prominent among them stands the University Extension movement with its powerful ally the Workers' Educational Association'”.

Conceding that education in the physical sciences may be class neutral, he insised that in fields like “social science e.g. history and economics, [e]ducation, particularly the kind needed by the workers, is not that impartial universal thing so much gushed about by educationalists”. He advocated changes in Ruskin College’s “curriculum and governing authority” such that it “will take its place as an integral part of the Labour Movement”.

Posing the question: “What is the importance of the strategic position of Ruskin College to the Labour Movement?”, Ablett first pointed out that: “It is a rule generally recognised in the tactics of any conflict that any position which excites the envy and desire of the opposition, is worthy the effort of preservation” — in other words, we must deny the ruling class this position from which they can attack us.

But he then moved at once to a positive case for “the advantages of Ruskin College to the Labour Movement”, claiming that: “The first, and greatest of these, lies in the necessary calibre of the students. Here are fifty students annually from the trade unions, from every industrial quarter of the country. They are essentially men who have already qualified themselves for active service in the Labour Movement. And, above all, they have ideals necessarily untainted by the commercialism that is such an unfortunate blot upon most educational institutions. In the present loose democracy of the trade-unions, individuals count for much. Such a body of men, scientifically trained to adapt themselves to the needs of the workers with a knowledge of the economics of Labour coupled with the ability of speech and the pen, would naturally be expected to wield a great influence in their respective localities. Gathered together in a little community for one or two years; the interchange of ideas; the various methods of improving conditions; the lessons to be gained by successes, and failures; these things constitute advantages of too great, and unique a character to be overlooked”.

Ablett then spelt out the danger faced by the college: “...if the attempt now being made to attach Ruskin College to the University — and the consequent permeation of University ideas into the minds of the young bloods of Labour — should succeed, then the main source of the future strength of the Labour Movement will be drained away into channels useless from the point of view of the mission of the workers stated above”. He added that: “There are people who oppose this view, who think Ruskin College, if attached to the University, would permeate instead of being permeated”, a standpoint he dismissed as “ridiculously disproportioned”.

Here again, then, we see the idea that the college must become fully part of the working-class movement, that it should produce thinkers and organisers, and that the WEA/extension project would make this impossible. As Ablett put it: “If [Ruskin] is absorbed by the University, its interest to the working class will be nil. They will have to look in other directions. If on the other hand, the workers take control of it, a new era will have dawned in the annals of the Labour Movement. The education of the workers will assume a new and fuller meaning.”

We can also see the students’ and ex-students’ analysis in the post-strike reprint of their pamphlet, The Burning Question of Education. This was now subtitled “Being an account of Ruskin College dispute, its cause and consequences”. Here the writer argued that: “Every class that has obtained power in our history has been able to maintain it only by controlling the educational machinery… There is as much conflict in the educational world as in the industrial and political world”.

Later the writer explains that, as a result of the extensionist take-over of Ruskin, “the whole idea of the ‘Plebs’ was widened so as to assume the form not merely of an institution, but of an educational structure similar in magnitude to the Trade Unions and political parties”. Against this background, it was then argued that under the new circumstances: 'To be loyal to Ruskin College is to conceal the disloyalty of Ruskin College to the Labour Movement”. This was explained in the following terms: “Class interests and class education are inseparable. An educational institution which either consciously, or unconsciously, neglects to recognize this incontrovertible fact, stands in the way of progress and deceives those who believe in it”.

Finally, the writer said: “The theories contained in the ‘Social Contract’ [were] the means of rallying and marshalling the forces that, set into operation, accomplished the French Revolution. But the educational structure of the working class, training the best young brains of organised labour, may have to turn out many Rousseaus, who will have to direct a movement many times larger and more important to the future of humanity than the movement which came into power with the French Revolution. How important then becomes the control of Ruskin College!” (The last sentence indicates that at this stage the League still hoped to win control of Ruskin, and in fact merger talks between the Central Labour College and Ruskin did take place — unsuccessfully — after the CLC moved to London in 1911.)

Analyses like those quoted here arose from and fed back into the practical struggle over the control of Ruskin and adult education.

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